A little over a hundred years ago, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York killed 146 workers. Many of the victims had tried to flee but were prevented from doing so by exits that had been locked by management. Scores of people died as they fell or jumped from windows to escape the flames, plummeting to the ground from the 10-story building.
The tragedy proved to be an important turning point, helping to lead to passage of tougher workplace safety and fire laws, as well as creation of labor unions in the garment industry. (As someone who covered the 1980 MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas that killed 85, and who witnessed the adoption of much tighter fire-safety rules as a result, I know how that dynamic works. Even after the MGM tragedy, Nevada’s powerful casino industry resisted fire-code changes as too expensive, changing its tune only after a second fire a few months later, this one at the Las Vegas Hilton, killed eight people.)
Now, a century after the Triangle factory fire, an all-too-similar scenario is playing out on the other side of the globe. On Nov. 25, 112 garment workers died in a fire in a high-rise factory in Bangladesh that had little or no fire-protection measures. In September, two similar fires in garment factories in Pakistan had killed almost 300 people.
It is not, in other words, a new problem. As Bloomberg reports, Wal-Mart, Gap and other companies that rely on such factories have been well aware of the dangers they represent. Wal-Mart in fact had technically ended its relationship with the Bangladesh factory where the most recent fire occurred, but the company also now acknowledges that Walmart goods were still being produced there because a supplier had “subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.”
Overall, however, the companies have been reluctant to help pay for necessary safety upgrades:
At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly.
The comments from a Wal-Mart sourcing director appear in minutes of the meeting, which was attended by more than a dozen retailers including Gap Inc. (GPS), Target Corp. and JC Penney Co…
“Specifically to the issue of any corrections on electrical and fire safety, we are talking about 4,500 factories, and in most cases very extensive and costly modifications would need to be undertaken to some factories,” they said in the document. “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”
But hey, at least it’s cheaper to do business under those conditions, right? Fewer of those pesky government regulations and inspectors to cause trouble? Paying a few pennies more per clothing item just to save a few hundred lives … “It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments.”
– Jay Bookman